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Singer-Songwriter-Survivor Ngaiire On Motherhood, Music + Building From The Rubble

Family

In last year’s Archibald Prize, one painting dominated the media coverage. A woman draped in purple and positioned slightly off centre peers across the canvas, poised and almost regal with a twist of fuchsia feathers curling through her piled hair like flames. 

This ethereal, nearly mystical study of singer, songwriter and proud Papua New Guinean woman, Ngaiire, didn’t win the prestigious portrait prize, but the image of her still and pensive face endured. Funnily enough, Ngaiire didn’t win the season of Australian Idol she appeared on as a promising 20-year-old either. But that is neither here nor there. The experience stirred the foundations of a deep, artistic being that would evolve and grow over the next decade and a half. 

Now, Ngaiire’s dazzling character and future soul sound has emerged as a unique force on the Australian music scene; just as strong, fluid and self-assured as she appears in that 2020 portrait.

We dropped in on Ngaiire and her son Nadav (‘Dovey’), 3, at their house on Darkinjung Country to talk about the confluence of art and motherhood. Oh, and those seriously epic matching outfits!

23rd April, 2021

Singer-songwriter Ngaiire her three-year-old son, Dovey. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Ngaiire really embraced the concept of self-care during the pandemic. ‘I pretty much live and breathe my work. But then COVID hit, and I started to see the value of creating little nooks around the house, to read in and be still,’ she says. This corner is one of them. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Ngaiire’s mum (who lives with them in their house on the Central Coast!) made Ngaiire and Dovey’s INCREDIBLE matching outfits from Spotlight fabrics. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

During a period of intense trauma and turbulence in Ngaiire’s adolescence, she found solace in her mum’s CD collection, which featured Mariah Carey, Bob Marley and Alicia Keys. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

‘Every day I worry, “Am I doing too much work and (giving) too much energy for my music and not enough with him?” The balancing can be agonising!’ says Ngaiire. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Ngaiire is a design and architecture obsessive! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

‘I never imagined that, despite how traumatic my birthing story was, the miracle of becoming a mother literally plugged me into a creative life source I never knew I could access. (It) felt like a tap had been turned on, and the parameters of my creativity broadened. The irony of having your motivation to create triple (while) having your energy levels completely diminished at the same time can feel like a cruel joke!’ Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Up until recently, Dovey’s favourite song was the Harry Styles banger ‘Adore You’. Now, it’s ‘Boogie Wonderland’ by Earth, Wind & Fire. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Ummmmm, how beautiful is the fam’s Central Coast pad?! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

‘The times Dovey has seen me sing he gets very still, which is great, because he’s never that still unless he’s asleep! It’s like he understands something special is happening,’ says Ngaiire. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Ngaiire and Dovey’s lockdown activity was planting seedlings. Dovey’s now seen a full year of crops grow! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Like mother, like son! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Ashe Davenport
Friday 23rd April 2021

‘The miracle of becoming a mother literally plugged me into a creative life source I never knew I could access’ – Ngaiire.

Life has tried to pull Ngaiire under on multiple occasions. At three-years-old she was diagnosed with cancer of her adrenal glands. She’s spoken about the friends she made on the oncology ward, and sung for the ones she lost. At age 12, in her homeland of Papua New Guinea, Ngaiire survived a volcanic eruption that covered her house in ash and separated her from her mother for several months. 

‘Aren’t you supposed to be dead?’ 

The question was asked by her nephew in a dream that would become the basis for her song ‘Once’ (track two on her hit 2016 album Blastoma). In the music video, Ngaiire travels through the carriages of a moving train, each one representing a chapter of her life. In some she’s being pulled at, stripped, hospital-gowned. In others she is fluid, in charge and perfectly synchronised. 

She’s risen from the ashes again and again, caped in fuchsia and gold.

This is an edited and condensed version of our conversation, which wasn’t so much about where she’s been, but where she is now, safe in the home she built from the rubble.

Can you please tell me everything about this outfit? 

When I found out Nadav and I would be doing this shoot, I died. I’m a lowkey hard out nerd for design and architecture. I’ll sadly admit that Design Files is probably one of my top 3 most visited IGs daily. I’m OBSESSED. 

When I got the news, I immediately sketched up two outfits for Nadav and I, went to Spotlight to get some fabric, then commissioned my mother (who is currently living with us) to sew them. Mum’s been [making my clothes] for decades, so it wasn’t our first rodeo. It helped that she’d already set up a mini sewing factory downstairs for our little toddler clothing label, Dovey Nero, which we’ve been slowly building and taking our time testing the market with. What Dovey is wearing is a little taste of what we’re currently working on. 

What’s it like sharing so much of your story in your music? 

Being a singer, my whole instrument is very much connected to how I’m feeling and what might’ve happened to me that morning or that week. When you’re working in an office, you’re expected to leave your personal issues at the door. But when it comes to music, it’s about finding that balance, and utilising your emotional backlog to tell a story. The wonder of songwriting is that your story becomes someone else’s anchor, or road map, to joy, relief or even salvation. 

How do you manage all of that emotional expense? Are you drained AF?

I don’t know how I manage it. It can be really taxing, especially being a mama. I have a three-year-old, which can be a lot, both physically and emotionally. Every day I worry, am I doing too much work and (giving) too much energy for my music and not enough with him? The balancing can be agonising! 

How do you get out of the working parent guilt loop? Is there something you do that’s just yours? 

I pretty much live and breathe my work. But then COVID hit, and I started to see the value of creating little nooks around the house, to read in and be still. It takes me forever to get through a book these days, but if I can just steal 5-10 minutes, read some literature, even just look out the window at the bush we live behind. The concept of self-care is something I’ve definitely come to understand more during the pandemic. 

How does the parenting load get divided in your house? 

My husband’s carrying a lot of the load right now. He’s a designer by trade and his workload varies. It’s amazing that it’s worked out the way it has, with me having such a big work year ahead. He’s doing most of the parenting while I release this album.

In terms of what daycare days look like, I mean, we always swear to wake up earlier to drop Nadav and start our work days, but it’s really hard sometimes. Especially if he wakes up a few times at night and you just want to doze that little bit longer! 

How does motherhood compare to your expectations of it?

It met ZERO of my expectations! In fact it surpassed any idea I possibly had of how hard, but also how rewarding and life-altering it would be. It elevated the respect I had for myself as someone who was (able) to bring life into the world.

Being a sickly child, my chances of getting pregnant were considered low. I never imagined that despite how traumatic my birthing story was, the miracle of becoming a mother literally plugged me into a creative life source I never knew I could access. (It) felt like a tap had been turned on, and the parameters of my creativity broadened.

The irony of having your motivation to create triple (while) having your energy levels completely diminished at the same time can feel like a cruel joke!

How does Nadav respond to your music? 

Singing is a deeply spiritual thing for me. It connects me to something that not a lot of people have access to, and we as artists kind of become the conduits for that for our audience.

The times Dovey has seen me sing he gets very still, which is great, because he’s never that still unless he’s asleep! It’s like he understands something special is happening.  I have no idea what he’s taking in, but based on what I get from music, I can only assume he’s taking on a multitude of information. Maybe on some level he’s understanding how the world works. How to relate to people, and how deep that connection can be. 

What messages do you hope a grown up Nadav will take from your songs?

I want him to grow up feeling like he can do anything he wants to do in this life, whether it’s music or something else completely opposite. I hope he always stays in touch with that reverence for music and that he knows that he is very privileged to be able to ingest it in a way that not a lot of kids are afforded. I hope he also still feels like I’m around for him through my songs even when I’ve passed on. And that I did the best I could despite my challenges so he (could) too. 

Did you find that deeper level through music or did you already know about it and that’s what led you to music? 

Before I’d hit 12 or 13, I’d been through so many huge life traumas. I had cancer, and my family lost their property and all their belongings to a major volcanic eruption. We were living in the bush, separated from my Mum for a fair while. She was looking for us frantically, but couldn’t contact us because everything was down, the phone lines, everything. She reached us through emergency announcements over AM radio, which a relative luckily caught (wind) of. The organisation she’d been working for chartered a plane, which landed in a nearby clearing and zipped us out of there to the mainland. Shortly after that, my mother found herself in an abusive second marriage, which was pretty traumatising for us, but 100% more so for her.

At that point in my life, I found solace in Mum’s CD collection. I’d listen to Mariah Carey on repeat, memorising every word from inside the cassette cover, and anything else (from) Bob Marley to Deep Forest (laughs). When we moved to Australia, I took up music at school. I sang ‘Fallin’ by Alicia Keys in front of the school assembly, (which) was a big moment. From that point, I understood I had something that affected people a certain way, beyond the noises that came out of my mouth. I knew I had to continue chasing music.

What can we expect from your upcoming album? What does it represent for you?

It’s an actual journey, not in a cliché way, but in that every song on it serves as an integral part of the sonic trajectory. You appreciate each song more if you hear them in context of the whole body of work, and I think that’s the beauty of what Jack Grace (my co-producer) and I are good at doing as a team – making music that breathes as a complete organism as it does individually. 

The album represents a whole life cycle for me. I started the album off the back of touring the last one (Blastoma) – before I got hitched and before I got knocked up (laughs). It was an attempt to present my Papua New Guinean heritage in a new light, so that I could feel more understood within my industry – something I never fully felt. Little did I know that the whole process, 4 years on, would propel me through a maze of re-discovery of who I really am and who I want to be. I care less about what people think a Papua New Guinean woman should be within an western context now then when I first started this project, because that’s everyone else’s problem. This record has become a celebratory affair of my love for PNG, people and myself. And at the end of the day, that’s what motivates people to make the decisions (throughout) their lives. 

FAMILY FAVOURITES

Favourite cafe?

Like Minds in Avoca

Weekend away?

It hadn’t really been a thing for us. We used to have accidental getaways through my work. So before COVID hit, we’d all get to hang out interstate if I had shows. Now we bush walk in places like Maitland Bay or the Pink Caves up the coast.

Rainy day activity?

We raised a lot of seedlings during lockdown to plant in the garden. Dovey got really good at planting seeds inside, where it’s prime seedling growing heat. He’s seen a full year of crops already, which is pretty cool.

Most played song?

Until recently it was Harry Styles, ‘Adore You’. Dovey requested it ALL. THE. TIME. But now it’s moved to ‘Boogie Wonderland’ by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Sunday morning ritual?

Not so much Sundays. Fridays are really our thing, when we do Shabbat. It’s the moment we get to bookend the week together, unplug, drink some wine, eat. Dovey helps to bake the challah. He’s getting pretty good at plaiting it!

New music by Ngaiire is coming in May. Her current tour dates are: May 28th at Corner Hotel in Melbourne; June 5th at The Zo in Brisbane; and June 12th at Factory Theatre in Sydney. Tickets can be booked here.

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net